Stress tests to be done on nuclear plants

Stress tests to be done on all nuclear plants in the EU

Stress tests on all nuclear plants in the EU will be carried out by the end of the year, the European Commission says.

A voluntary accord struck at talks in Brussels is designed to bolster current high safety standards in the wake of the Japanese nuclear crisis, said EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger.

He was speaking after two-and-a-half hours of talks with experts from national nuclear safety authorities, nuclear plant operators and plant suppliers in the EU.

Some of the EU's energy ministers attended, but the UK was represented by chief nuclear inspector Dr Mike Weightman from the Nuclear Installation Inspectorate and Mark Higson, chief executive of the Office of Nuclear Development.

There was “general agreement”, said the commissioner, on the swift introduction of stress tests to a common EU standard.

“Over the course of the next week we in the Commission will organise further meetings to come up with proposals for how and when stress tests with common standards and criteria can be carried out for purposes of safety in the light of knowledge gleaned from the terrible events in Japan,” he said.

“This is a reassessment of all potential risks - earthquakes, tsunamis, terror attacks, cooling systems and operational activities, hazards including power cuts in situ, requirements for back-up systems, and design structures of nuclear power plants.”

The EU already has a Nuclear Safety Directive covering the 143 nuclear plants in the member states, although Oettinger emphasised that nuclear safety requirements remain “first and foremost” the responsibility of national authorities.

The Directive was agreed in 2009, effectively implementing at EU level the International Atomic Energy Agency's “Fundamental Safety Principles” and obligations required of nuclear states under a “Convention on Nuclear Safety.”

EU states already adhere to or exceed the requirements, but technical application of the Directive in domestic law in the 27 countries is due to be completed by this July at the latest.

Now the Commissioner says plans for a 2014 review of the Directive will be brought forward, with an interim report soon on whether the Directive's remit should be extended.

“This stress test plan is a first step towards genuine Europeanisation in this area” said Oettinger. “We are creating a common European standard for tests for nuclear power plants.”

He went on: “There are high European safety standards already, but these will be further enhanced by European stress tests.”

Asked why the tests were not to be made compulsory on national authorities he replied: “The question of common stress tests on the basis of common strict standards was wide open only a few hours ago: it is not possible to render this legally binding at EU level so quickly: if we review the Directive we might do so but there was no time today, so we now have a voluntary agreement and we will conduct these tests just as soon as we have agreed on the criteria, the reach and extent of them. The tests will be carried out by recognised independent experts in the course of this year.”

Liberal Democrat MEP Fiona Hall said there should be a moratorium on further nuclear power developments in Britain pending a new debate on safety concerns.

“The key issue at Fukushima is not the earthquake but the failure of back-up systems during the emergency shutdown,” she said.

“This raises much wider questions about nuclear safety, not least because Japan is a country with a high reputation for technological reliability.

“I am particularly concerned that there has been too narrow an approach to nuclear safety - one which focused on technical systems and failed to take into account the wider consequences of a disaster scenario.

“Public and investor confidence in nuclear energy has been severely shaken by events in Japan. A moratorium is now necessary to give time for a full public debate and reassessment,” Hall said.

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